5 Lessons Learned From The Deepwater Horizon You Can Use Today To Keep Yourself Safe

John Konrad
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November 9, 2010

The Deepwater Horizon tragedy teaches the general public and regulators about the safety culture in the offshore industry and the environmental risk associated with deepwater drilling.  As a seagoing professional, here are five things you can do to keep you safer while working at sea.

Proximity And Preparedness

The physical and mental state of the Deepwater Horizon survivors varied considerably from minor cuts and burns to traumatic head injury and panic. The extent of these injuries where directly related to two factors; proximity to the initial explosions and personal preparedness.

Brent Mansfield, the rig’s 1st Engineer and graduate of the US Merchant Marine Academy, was as well trained as anyone on the rig in emergency procedures yet he was the most critically injured with a deep fracture to his skull. That night Mansfield was in the Engine Control Room adjacent to the first explosion which occurred in a main diesel generator. There is little Brent could have done to avoid his injuries, his physical proximity to the explosion being the primary cause of his injuries.

The second most critically injured that night was Buddy Trahan who had suffered multiple bone fractures and significant burns after being pinned beneath a cabinet near the explosion. The fractures Trahan received where directly related to his proximity to the blast but the burns might have been avoided if he had been wearing fire resistant coveralls.

Lower on the list of injured persons was the rig’s OIM who had been taking a shower in his cabin, a fair distance from the first explosion. According to his testimony he found a towel and some clothes but struggled to find his boots and coveralls in the darkness of his cabin. He had no communication with the bridge and, therefore, was unaware of the dangers he would encounter. During his escape to the bridge subsequent explosions blew insulation and debris onto him, essentially tar and feathering his body and rendering him functionally blind.

Apart from their initial proximity to the flames a second factor determined the types of injuries these three individuals suffered, the time between knowledge of a problem and the time of injury. Brent Mansfield had the shortest interval of time with only seconds between high gas alarms sounding and unconsciousness. He had no time to prepare. Buddy Trahan, having checked in with the subsea engineer minutes before the explosion,  was the first to know something was wrong that night yet he did not know the immediacy of the problem in time to don coveralls or other PPE that would have prevented burns. The OIM was relatively safe in his cabin during the first blast with a modest amount of time to prepare himself yet he received his injuries during the escape.

Mansfield had no time or options but Trahan’s burns could have been prevented if company policy mandated coveralls inside the accommodation but, in reality, he had few options to protect himself. The OIM’s injuries however where completely avoidable. This article is not an indictment of the OIM’s actions, I personally would have faired no better, or that of the crew. Rather, I am writing about it so others can learn the important lessons of that night which include:

(1) Time, Distance and Shielding – The critical factors of survival

In CBRD training mariners working aboard navy supply ships are taught that during a nuclear, chemical or biological strike three factors are critical to your survival:

Time – The Longer you remain in the area, the higher your risk of fatal expose.
Distance – The further away you are from the incident, the more likely you are to survive.
Shielding – Be it a what you where (e.g. Fireman’s or Chemical Exposure Suit) or where you are located (e.g. standing behind a thick steel bulkhead or water curtain) the more physical barriers between you and the incident, the more likely you are to survive.

The same is true of blow-outs, fires and other emergencies aboard your vessel. To be safe you want to take action quickly and remain within reach or danger for as little time as possible (time). You want to distance yourself first from the blast area then, with abandonment, from the ship itself (distance). Last you want to wear PPE and keep physical protection between yourself and danger.

The lack of time, distance and shielding proved fatal for 11 men and where primary factors in the injuries of all persons that night. Make sure you are aware of these factors and use the knowledge to plan your escape.

(2) PPE – Personal Protective Equipment

Had a spare set of coveralls been hanging in the subsea office Trahan visited he might have put them on and prevented burns. The same applies if company policy had mandated that he wore them inside the accommodations. Personally I do not wear PPE inside the accommodations and do not think companies should start mandating this but it is important for all companies and individuals to ask “What If?”. Do not assume any area aboard your vessel is safe, consider the danger and develop plans to mitigate risk.

What if your xx happens aboard your vessel in proximity to yy? Brainstorm ideas today to be prepared for tomorrow.

(3) Communication

As fire team leader I keep my radio near me at all times including at night where it charges within reach of my bed. The radio remains off much of the time but, if the general alarm starts to ring, I can quickly turn it on and start learning about the emergency from the second I wake up. Time is a critical factor.

If you are a team leader and wait until you’re at your muster station to call the bridge or, worst yet, you wait for the bridge to call you – you’re are wasting valuable time. Keeping a radio nearby at all times to get yourself up to speed fast and put your mind immediately on the problems confronting you.

(4) Availability of gear

An emergency gear locker is of no use if a fire is between your team and their gear. Make sure your vessel has multiple lockers and that, at least, one is available in all conceivable situations to don’t require immediate abandonment of the ship.

If your company is unwilling to buy additional equipment you need to take action on an individual level by identifying potential fire zones near the lockers. Determine alternate access points to the gear. You should also determine the availability of equipment elsewhere on the ship. Does the vessel have a safety gear locker with spares? Does the engine room have an ax and crowbar? It will be much easier to find this equipment if you know where it is located before the fire starts to burn.

(5) Availability of PPE

More important than the radio near my bed is the flashlight hanging next to it. If the ship loses power you will not have time to look through drawers to find the flashlight.

But a flashlight is not enough. Hanging behind my door are the following:

1 set of fire resistant coveralls – with gloves, a flashlight and knife tucked in the pockets
1 pair of eye protection & hardhat
1 pair of steel toe boots with socks tucked inside

This spare set of PPE is critical to your survival and, had it been available, would have saved the OIM from injury. But remember, time is critical, to be effective the gear needs to be hanging, neat and organized, in your cabin not stowed away in drawers drawers.

Further this equipment need to be in addition to your work clothes! The fire resistant coating on your coveralls becomes less effective each time it is washed so your spare set should be in “like new” condition. You also don’t want your gear to be in the laundry or in the change room when crisis emerges – it must be hanging in your room and ready to don.

Gear To Abandon Ship
Many ships have an emergency grab bag packed with an EPIRB, handheld VHF, flashlights and other supplies to assist you we it is necessary to abandon ship. It is time that we all update this bag with the right gear.

When the Deepwater Horizon exploded in April of this year there was little need for such a grab bag as the workboat Damon Bankston was ready and available to haul in survivors. Yet a few items would have been helpful. Had an extra EPIRB been available and tossed in the water at the time of abandonment, its natural drift would have given search and rescue personnel an estimate of where to look for survivors. The second item is a handheld satellite phone, these are now relatively cheap and provide a level of communication with shore that can not be matched by radio.

When was the last time you looked in your abandon ship bag? Do you even have one? Today is the time to consider the usefulness of each item contained in that bag and to fill it with additional supplies that may be needed.

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